Thunderstorm Asthma? Is The Killer Storm avoidable?

This story aired on 60 Minutes on 14 May 2017. Tara Brown investigated this catastrophe. On 21 November 2016 thunderstorm asthma was responsible for swamping emergency services with a huge number of calls for assistance. Hospital emergency departments overflowed with distressed patients. Mass hysteria erupted as thousands were gasping for air in a sudden mass asthma outbreak around Melbourne. Ten people died as a result, not nine as originally thought. There has never been an outbreak as catastrophic as this one anywhere in the world. Paul Holman of Ambulance Victoria said there was a call every 4 seconds at the peak and

"It's like a little bio-bomb going off." 

not enough people to help everyone. He said it was the most challenging night of a 40 year career. According to Tara Brown's investigation 8,500 people ended up in hospital that night and 40% of them had never suffered asthma before. Another article reports that there were more than 2,000 emergency calls for ambulances that night. The scene at hospitals were described as apocalyptic. Many never went to hospital instead opting to ride out the suffocating experience where they took shelter.

Article:  I'm watching my daughter just disintegrate, barely able to move.'

Full Video: 60 Minutes Australia:  The killer storm, part 1 (2017)

Full Video: 60 Minutes Australia:  The killer storm, part 2 (2017)


Thunderstorm Asthma history in Australia

Deakin University say there are four recorded thunderstorm asthma episodes:  1987, 1989, 2010 and 2016. Associate Professor Suphioglu and his team at Deakin AIRwatch in the School of Life and Environmental Sciences aim to combat the phenomenon through their research.

According to Melbourne respiratory physician Dr Nick Antoniades, thunderstorm asthma events have been far more common. According to this article he said: “These have all occurred in November, including in 1984, 1987, 1989, 2003, 2010, 2011. The numbers of people presenting to the emergency department have ranged between 30 to 532.” Dr Nick also said noted that during the 2016 episode the numbers spiked significantly to 3,270 patients. He is the director of Melbourne Respiratory and Sleep Services and consultant respiratory/sleep physician at Austin Health. The same article also mentions other reported Australian episodes including Wagga Wagga in 1997, Newcastle in 1998, and Canberra in 2014. 


What ryegrass?

"It would be an awful tragedy if nine people died, and we learnt nothing."

In part 2 of The Killer Storm story Tara Brown speaks to experts about the ryegrass, its pollen and the unique circumstances that led to the 2016 event. The investigation say that ryegrass pastures west and north of Melbourne were involved. According to this article evidence suggest that thunderstorm asthma start with perennial ryegrass, Lolium perenne, an introduced species from the colonial days. It is the dominant flowering grass between October and December. It's on Melbourne nature strips, sports fields, in backyards and in farmland from the city's outskirts to the Western Districts.

Image: Lolium perenne click to enlarge, image via Wikimedia Commons.

In the dairy industry for example growing ryegrass is encouraged because research show it is a high energy food to increase milk production. This focus on high yield have become a necessity in the dairy industry because farmers are struggling. Dairy Australia's website say: "perennial ryegrass (Lolium perenne) pastures have been, and will continue to be, the mainstay of pasture-based dairy farming in southern Australia in the foreseeable future." If this ryegrass is causing the crisis, it is perhaps useful that all farmers return to diverse species pasture for their animals, instead of growing more ryegrass to maximise profit and yield.

In addition, many different research projects now show why monocultures, like ryegrass, are not sustainable for grassland systems. In this article Australian soil scientist Dr Christine Jones explains why diverse plant communities produce more carbon and more minerals that contribute to robust and healthy animals. She says that it is simply not enough to have green plants like ryegrass and clover. "It's not possible for livestock to thrive on ryegrass and clover 365 days of the year." 

Professor Cenk Suphioglu says that he has no doubt that the thunderstorm asthma event will re-occur. He says the sheer presence in high numbers is why Melbourne is the thunderstorm asthma capital of the world.


What leads to Thunderstorm Asthma?

There will be another wet winter, which will lead to another season of overabundant pollen putting millions at risk of hayfever, or in worst case scenario another asthma outbreak. Tara Brown explains that ryegrass pollen is normally too big to get into the lower airways to cause an asthma attack. She says freak conditions on the day were as follows: the pollen count was extreme, the temperatures were high, the storm blew in and sucked up thousands of tons of ripe pollen. In the clouds moisture and an electric charge exploded the pollen into trillions of microscopic particles. Professor Suphioglu demonstrated to Tara in this video that when the pollen granule ruptures it is "like a little bio-bomb going off".

GMO Ryegrass and Thunderstorm Asthma?

Article:  Dairy farmers open debate on genetically modified ryegrass

What happened to the push to grow GMO ryegrass in Victoria? Modelling suggested a 10 - 15% per hectare increase in milk production, which may sound tempting to a profit driven approach industry. Some farmers were concerned about consumer dislike of GMO's in their food and the destruction of the organic industry. Is this GMO ryegrass now growing in Victoria? Was it involved in this sudden allergy event that killed ten people and frightened thousands? 

Is a warning system really going to be the best and most effective way to avoid the next catastrophe? 

A dairy solution

When farmers convert from industrial dairy to producing raw milk for human consumption, it becomes imperative to stop with the monoculture pasture and convert to diverse species pasture to enable more carbon sequestration and more minerals and nutrients available to the plants. More minerals in the plants means healthier animals producing disease-free milk high in vital nutrients.

European studies that show raw milk consumption reduce asthma, allergies, eczema, ear infections and colds.

Article:  Melbourne is food allergy capital of the world?

According to the information in the article above dairy farmers and their children are protected from asthma. Organic Pastures dairy in California, who have been selling raw milk direct to consumers for 17 years, confirms what European studies and parents are saying:  consumption of raw milk reduces asthma. There are steps that can be taken to ensure raw milk is pathogen-free prior to reaching consumers (pathogens are bacteria that may be harmful to human health). In the article below, Mark encourages people to remember that there are two types of raw milk: one for the pasteuriser and one for the people.  

Article:  A response to a concerned doctor regarding Raw Milk consumption.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Melbourne was so severely struck with asthma but not country Victorians. According to dairy microbiologist Dr. Ron Hull: "most of Australia's 6000 dairy farmers and their families drink raw milk without health problems" (source). Tara Brown reported that this storm raced through country Victoria and then slammed Melbourne.

Why are Melbournians so particularly vulnerable?

Melbourne raw milk prohibition

Melbourne was particularly affected and there are unique circumstances to consider.

It seems as if Melbourne (and Victoria) are involved in some strange allergy experiment on a grand scale.

In August last year Melbourne was called the food allergy capital of the world by researchers. It is also the city where raw milk access is the most severely restricted and enforced in Australia. Since 1 January 2015 in Victoria new regulation require a bitter agent added to raw milk sold to discourage consumption. There is also the threat of a fine of up to $60,000 for supplying or feeding it to your family. It is also the city where dairy farmers who supplied the black market were severely scared off from doing so. None of the other Australian cities have experienced similar enforcement of raw milk prohibition. Raw 'bath milk' access continues in some other states to this day. It seems like authorities want Melbourne to be without raw milk access, unless it comes from farmer's own cows. Melbournians find this a huge obstacle.

Politicians and the dairy industry were understandably concerned about raw 'bath milk' being consumed for about 10 years in Victoria. They may also have reasoned that raw 'bath milk' could affect the perception of the milk going to China, or confidence in Australian dairy were at risk of suffering. But now Australian citizens are suffering. Many say they are paying the price with returning health problems. Many raw milk supporters say they need their raw milk for its therapeutic benefits. ARMM estimates that weekly sales of ‘bath milk’ in Victoria stood at about 17,000 litres per week in 2014. There is huge demand.

What is more important? Protecting the export milk market against perceived threats or protecting Australia's own citizens in cases such as these? Overseas experience show that raw milk industries can create much needed jobs and prosperity when it is regulated fairly. By creating a raw milk industry some dairy farmers no longer need to take shortcuts in order to survive the Milk Crisis. They can focus on producing a high quality raw dairy product with a more holistic, ecological and ethical approach to farming. 


Respiratory Allergies and Food Allergies are not so different

Video: Professor Barry Marshall, from the University of Western Australia, explains how certain weather conditions can effect asthma sufferers.

Respiratory allergies

occur when the immune system has a negative reaction to some sort of airborne substance such as dust or pollen. Research shows it is not the London plane trees or the Acacia flowers that is the main culprit: it's grasses.

According to this article thunderstorm asthma commonly affects young adults with a history of hayfever but not necessarily of asthma. 


is an allergic reaction to pollen in the nose and affects one in six Australians.


is a lung disorder in which inflammation cause the bronchi to swell and narrow the airways. The attacks of spasm in the bronchi of the lungs causes difficulty breathing. It is usually connected to an allergic reaction or other forms of hypersensitivity that range from mild to life-threatening. A 2014 Catalyst episode also talks about it here.

Thunderstorm-induced asthma

resembles anaphylaxis, the most severe form of allergic reaction, because it strikes so suddenly and affects people who previously may only have suffered hayfever according to doctors in this article. This makes sense because there were people who did not suffer symptoms that day.   

Anaphylaxis from milk allergy

Some people have a similar life threatening allergic response to drinking pasteurised milk. They risk an anaphylactic shock or death if they consume it. Learn more from experts in this article. When bacteria are killed during pasteurisation, the resulting pieces of dead bacteria are foreign proteins that our bodies react against. MAST cells release their histamines; asthma bronchial spasm occurs; mucus is released that creates the bed for ear infections, and allergies rage. In the USA doctors are telling patients not to drink pasteurised milk (source). Allergies and lactose intolerance are higher with pasteurisation of milk. 

Raw milk has an immune building response. It stabilises MAST cells and treats and prevents allergies and asthma (Parsifal study). The MAST cell stabilisation effect of raw milk is lost when heated. The effects of raw whey protein have been shown to heal asthma (Gabriela study) (source).



In a nutshell:

Pasteurisation of milk causes the dead bacteria to split open and release their internal components. When this is consumed the body may recognise these as foreign objects and an allergic response ensues, which may include asthma.

In the same manner grass pollen is ruptured when the conditions are right for thunderstorm asthma. The pollen's internal components are released in the air and when this allergen is inhaled, an allergic response may ensue. 


Asthma and Allergies kill many Australians

Asthma Australia say that asthma kills over 400 people in Australia every year, which is far more common than people think. Allergies are rife in Australia but Melbourne seem to have a unique cocktail of circumstances that enables it. Read these articles for more in depth information about what research and other experts are saying:  

Melbourne is food allergy capital of the world?

Gut microbiota and the immune compromised

Why put profits over people when millions are at risk of the next inevitable asthma outbreak?

"It's like a little bio-bomb going off."

"It would be an awful tragedy if nine people died, and we learnt nothing."

See the follow up article about Thunderstorm Asthma published in October 2017:  The Benefits of Raw Milk.

Thunderstorm Asthma Inquest June 2018

On Monday the 25th of June, the Inquest started and ARMM continued to question why the actual problem, ryegrass, seem to go unaddressed. See the follow-up article:  Thunderstorm Asthma Inquest.